Ann Arborite Jim Nissen
Gene and Pat moved their young family to Ann Arbor from Hamburg in Livingston County in 1969 to escape harrassment they faced after adopting an African American son--Nissen's younger brother, Jon. Growing up in the middle of seven kids, "I had to be loud to get anyone's attention," says Nissen, who started playing the trumpet as a third grader--"The first song I learned was '[The] Victors'"--and went on to earn three music degrees from U-M.
In a household of high achievers, Nissen took nine years of French classical ballet with his sister Eva as his partner. She became a ballerina with the Stockholm Ballet and now serves as its choreographer. (Another sister lives in Singapore with her husband; a third is an engineer in Virginia; and a fourth works for a division of NBC in New York. His brother Steve works for an auto dealership in Canton; Jon died young in 1995.) But Nissen says he never felt the siblings were in competition because "we all had such diverse interests."
Nissen played trumpet through his graduation from Pioneer High, then switched to organ at the U-M. A Fulbright scholarship allowed him to study in Paris, with famed organist Jean Langlais, who was blind and read all of his music in Braille. Langlais had high expectations for the young American: "In one year I had to learn the complete works of Cesar Franck and most of the compositions of Langlais--and there are many," Nissen recalls. "I had to learn how to practice efficiently."